Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Liberal arts, two anecdotes


One morning I arrived on campus to discover a new sculpture in our Academic Quad, which already had about eight sculptures placed with plenty of breathing room around the lawn. In a year of salary freezes, budget cuts, and no new faculty lines, some of my colleagues were outraged that the university was spending money on new (and excessive looking) art. It didn’t help that this particular sculpture vaguely resembled a giant pair of testicles, or in the offhand description of one of my students, “a big droopy ball sack.”

Later that day a team of workers in cargo pants and black T-shirts began to install yet another sculpture in the center of the quad: this one was a precarious stack of wooden chairs that interlocked legs in an intricate pattern. What was going on here? 

It turned out they were props. It was all for a movie.

Unbeknownst to any of us (at least my colleagues and students who wandered around these new sculptures, angry or bemused), a scene for 22 Jump Street was being filmed on our campus, and they were using our sculpture garden as a typical college setting. Only it wasn’t typical enough—there weren’t adequate sculptures for it to really look like a college quad. And apparently one of these simulacral sculptures (the rumors were beginning to circulate), would be destroyed in the making of this scene. (Car chase, wreck.) In order to make a college, you’ve got to break some art.

The next morning when I took my Literature & Environment students outside for class, we noticed that all the maroon Loyola signs had been concealed, and industrial-blue signage that read Metropolitan City State College was displayed liberally throughout the quad. We were now sitting in a newly renamed Meditation Sculpture Garden (stressed by the subtitle “Quiet Zone”). It was a surreal class that morning, discussing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘wilderness’ while stern grips and sweaty set assistants bustled around us, clamping things down and positioning hidden clusters of spotlights, making our college campus into a more dazzlingly authentic looking place for higher learning. Jean Baudrillard eat your heart out.

Having recently made it successfully through the tenure application process at my university, I decided to quip on twitter that I had been promoted to associate professor of English at Metropolitan City State College. And my friends and followers favorited, retweeted, and congratulated me—in earnest or ironically, no way to tell. Twitter, like so much of the Internet, can be impressively tone deaf.


Last weekend I listened to a Diane Rehm Show podcast called "Worries About the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges." Among some of the more insightful examples and expected axioms offered throughout the program, I was struck the absence of a certain phrase: critical thinking. This phrase has been used to the point of exhaustion to describe something inestimable about liberal arts education, and has become something of a placeholder to describe without describing what college is good for.

Critical thinking: it's something ubiquitous on syllabi (especially for first-year courses) as a learning objective or assessable outcome, but something equally difficult to pin down or articulate with any exactitude. What is critical thinking? Well, you know it when you see it—or when you do it. Or maybe you recognize when it isn't happening, because you notice that everyone is acting like robots (like docile robots, anyway). Whatever it is or is supposed to be, it's a phrase that usually gives me the creeps, because when I hear it or see it, it's often in the service of something mandatory, obligatory, required—it's a rhetorical tic that becomes ritualized and normalized, and is often uttered in the context of drawn-out committee meetings to nodding faculty. In short, the phrase often comes to mean the opposite of something produced by sudden break, rupture, or flash of insight (critical is etymologically related to crisis). 

But so the point is that "critical thinking" as a phrase often gets trotted out in rote ways, as a vague aim of a certain kind of pedagogy. If you put someone on the spot and ask what it really is, you will likely induce some incredible facial expressions that veer between puzzlement and horror, depending on the person. "You know, it's like, thinking critically about things!" Needless to say, this sort of response doesn't win accolades in terms of definitional clarity.

Still, it was odd to suddenly not hear this phrase (or at least, not as a recurring trope) on a radio program focusing on the value of liberal arts education. It was as if all the prior repetitions and insistences had set it (i.e., "critical thinking") up for all too easy dismissal. The guests on the show discussed liberal arts in terms of creating "well rounded" subjects individuals, but not one of them pressed the point that education might actually involve developing a critical stance toward the world. (Save maybe Catharine Bond Hill of Vassar, who kept trying to steer the conversation back to economics.) Because that's really what critical thinking is, isn't it? It's being able to have—and hone, and articulate—a contrary attitude toward things in society or culture that seem totally fucked up to you but toward which most people shrug and go about their business.

Critical thinking is a comportment toward the world as it is, with a mind to changing it for the better. Isn't this what we hope for out of college education, at its best? That students will, in learning about the world from a range of disciplinary perspectives, actually want to change it for the better? Because if so, then all of the rampant and tepid talk about higher education in terms of professionalism, technological proficiency, vocation, career training...this is all a lot of very dull resignation, a stoical attitude that things are basically set in stone now, and all we can do is shape ourselves around the mold. Oh, and make sure you get some critical thinking along the way; tick that box.

Monday, March 9, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about art lately. Cleaning up my office recently, I stumbled on some old paintings I made in Bozeman and in Davis, between ten and fifteen years ago. The one above is of the tamarc at the Bozeman airport, where I worked and even once spent the night. When I lived in Bozeman I watched my friend Greg Keeler turn gloppy acrylic paint into eerie post-western landscapes (like this one). I mostly painted moody little watercolors and gouaches of the mountains, which I called "visual haiku" and sent off to friends and family in the mail. They were really very little: usually no bigger than 1.5" by 3" and often smaller. Here's one:

Later, when I was a grad student at UC Davis, I was lucky to take an MFA studio course with Mike Henderson, and the art students in that class were on fire with brilliant ideas, and were patient with my ramblings about airports (I was working on my dissertation at the time, about airports in American literature & culture). So patient, in fact, that for the final project that semester, Mike had me read one of my essays about airports while he played a partly ruined guitar and the other students played improvised instruments—and then, to top it off, Mike took the recording of this performance and played it in his car during a rainy night while he drove in circles around the Oakland Airport arrivals and departures loop, all of which is captured on film from his videocamera which fell over on the dashboard as he was driving, and so for many minutes you hear the background noise of the studio session while watching the sideways airport signs through the swish swishing of the windshield wipers. I'm not exaggerating. I still have a copy of the VHS tape Mike gave me, in a drawer in my office (and no way to play it). This was a true graduate school experience in northern California, am I right?

Also during my time at UC Davis, I was invited to take part in a meeting of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, when they were were discussing plans for new public artworks to be placed in the renovated Terminal B at the Sacramento airport. Part of my dissertation research involved a public tour of the Sacramento airport art (before the new terminal was finished), which I later reincorporated into my book The Textual Life of Airports. Airport art fascinates me for the ways it plays off the primary experience (and spectacle) of flight.

But less nostalgically, more tangibly and in the present: my son Julien (now four) likes nothing better these days than to work on elaborate art projects at his craft table, turning our kitchen into a glorious mess every few hours. We can barely keep up. These projects range from simple ink drawings and slightly less simple paintings, to sculptures made out of ribbons cut from a giant map and a collage of photographs which we realized was Julien's rendition of something like proto-Instagram.

We think he got the latter idea from Instagram itself: he has been observing carefully as my partner Lara has been working on a new series of scrolling images that play with(in) the digital matrix, crossing lines and forms. (I guess Julien probably hears us talking relentlessly about the possibilities and pitfalls of social media, digital reproduction, art's aura, etc. etc. Walter Benjamin, you called it.)

When I showed Julien the work of Tara Donovan, we had to take a spontaneous trip to our neighborhood Walgreens to buy a bulk pack of plastic cups so Julien could try working with them. And after I took down our Julie Mehretu book and explained the scale of some of her works, we had to go to Lowe's and obtain a giant scroll of contractor's paper so that Julien could unroll it on the floor and get lost in shapes, lines, and meandering squiggles. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not just being romantic here: part of the thrill of this interest Julien has is purely pragmatic, on my end: it keeps him seriously busy for multiple hours at a time.)

Julien got on an architecture kick the other day, and now the floor of his room vaguely resembles the opening scenes of the film Wall·E, where you can't quite distinguish actual skyscrapers from the tremendous piles of rubbish. (When I get weary of his demands to build yet another tower, Julien lambasts me with the axiom, "Builders never give up!")

Last week as I was preparing for my seminar on David Foster Wallace, I glanced over at a small box of Legos that I keep in my office, for when Julien occasionally joins me there on the weekends. I had this sudden thought: Maybe I should take the Legos to class and ask my students to build and present concepts for their final projects! I didn't do it that day, but I think I will plan something like this next semester: get my students to make something, in another medium, before they start to write. Of course writing can be a form of art, too—but we often forget this, even in (sometimes especially in) college English classes.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Revisiting Air Force One

Air Force One w/ AT-ATs © Joey DeVilla

Ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at UC Davis, I wrote a paper about the presidential airplane Air Force One. It was for a seminar on political theory, and I was considering this exceptional plane in light of Michel Foucault's writings on "governmentality"—or how methods and modes of rule get distributed and dispersed (in sometimes the smallest and seemingly most insignificant ways) throughout society and culture. I was actually looking less at the plane itself and more at a very curious ancillary text: the narrative "product description" for the plane that appeared for some time on the Boeing website. (It's gone now, replaced by a far more prosaic "overview" of the plane's features. But it was a fascinating text, revealing so much about the myths and fantasies embodied by this as-if self-evident aircraft.)

The huge modified airliner that normally serves as Air Force One would seem to be an obvious marker of governmental power; at the same time, the plane fades into an ordinary, unquestionable background. The commercial airliner is a mere instrument of modern life. The plane itself is really no more than a specially configured but technically standard jumbo jet deriving from a model that first flew almost half a century ago. It is not, for instance, a unique military design, unlike any other plane we see in the sky. It is a normal airplane, for a normal person who we happen to elect as our temporary leader. But it is also utterly exceptional, with its own privileges, protocols, and contingency plans. Ordinary, and yet not. You can see the clever logic involved.

The current two Boeing 747-200 aircraft that serve regularly and interchangeably as Air Force One have been flying for 25 years.

Now it has been announced that the U.S. Air Force has ordered new 747-800 aircraft to upgrade and replace the existing aging presidential planes. This was a surprising decision to me, because it would have seemed an apt opportunity to update and shift the signifying functions of the presidential plane—say, toward the Dreamliner, which (initial hiccups and glitches notwithstanding) at least offers seminal promises of greater fuel efficiency, environmental awareness, and forward-looking technologies for flight. True, it is not as big as the iconic 747; but might not that itself be conceived as a progressive nudge toward something like modesty in the face of complex global relations? And anyway, if sheer size were the mark of presidential power, a bolder move might have been to select the fully double-deckered Airbus A380 as the new Air Force One. Of course, then there is the matter of national pride; Airbus is Boeing's notoriously European competitor.

The new fleet of Air Force Ones are estimated to last for 30 years. That means we will have over 50 years of the same basic aircraft design ruling from above—and requiring, then, the same basic infrastructure, arrangements, and social relations on the ground below. In all its splendor and world-in-miniature dynamism, Air Force One is an index of stasis.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Minor Collision

This is a report on the end of airports.

Today two 737s clashed their wings on the taxiways of LGA.

One was a Southwest plane, the other American Airlines.

Pictures snapped and tweeted by passengers showed the broken winglet of the Southwest plane, and stupefied workers ambling around the scene, dragging the shorn part across the tarmac.

This was the moment they'd all been waiting for. The moment they'd trained for.

But it was over so soon. No injuries, no fiery crash.

One passenger reported it felt like a car sliding on ice.

It is likely that this incident will turn out to cost several hundred thousand dollars in repairs, rebooking, & investigation. But insurance policies and corporate redundancies will surely mitigate any losses.

The collision will be chalked up to holiday travel, taxiway congestion, and perhaps an air traffic controller (or crew) having taken on an extended shift.

For the affected passengers, it will likely recede into a good holiday story, a not-quite airplane disaster, a mere brush with terminal mortality.

Many years from now, this event may emerge as a key entry in the index of the end of airports. A cracked winglet, amused passengers, gaping ramp workers, eager social media audiences.... Another weary delay in the daily life of air travel.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The End of Airports


The End of Airports is a sequel to (and kind of a prequel, too) and companion for my book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. Extending from the theories in my first book, but written more like creative nonfiction (sometimes travel writing, sometimes cultural criticism), The End of Airports traces speculative paths around and through airports, and charts a constellation of contemporary puzzles and crisis points that increasingly riddle human air travel. This book has been thrilling to write & put together because it stretches across almost 15 years of travels & thinking about airports. I'm finishing the final manuscript this week, and the book will be published by Bloomsbury in September 2015.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Terminal 2, STL

The Southwest terminal (Terminal 2), separate from but adjacent to the main Lambert-St. Louis airport terminal (Terminal 1), is spare: it is severe and efficient. It provides a rarified airport experience, with no frills or festoons, save perhaps the red vintage airplane suspended in one corner, awkwardly poised above an area apparently converted after the fact into a release-valve security checkpoint. (They open this checkpoint when the main checkpoint line gets clogged.)

The gate area is minimalist—not in an ultra-modern way, but simply pared down to the bare necessities. Still, it has frayed ends. For instance, plastic wrapping balloons from the ceiling every fifteen or so feet, evidence of some interior ductwork or insulation project that seems to have been left incomplete.

Tucked into one wall, between a vending machine and a family restroom, there stood for some time a defunct single computer kiosk advertising free INTERNET. The screen was dark, its electrical cord severed. Still, it stood there for a while—a minor monolith, a disengaged paean to our new century of information-on-demand and democratic flight.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Teaching at the End of the World

Below is the short paper I gave at the BABEL Working Group conference at UC Santa Barbara earlier this month. I presented alongside four of my wonderful colleagues from Loyola, and we were all talking in various ways, coming from different angles, about what it might mean to be "teaching at the end of the world." And relatedly, here's an ad that Loyola has running on the St. Charles streetcar line now—it's me, teaching one of my Literature & Environment seminars:

Whenever the weather is even minimally conducive, I take my classes outside and we sit in a circle to discuss the day's reading. I keep lobbying our university administration for clever seating emplacements around our campus that could be utilized on such occasions, but to no avail (at least not yet). So we bivouac on a piece of sun baked sod, half-shaded by a live oak for those who overheat easily, and we pull out our copies of Robinson Crusoe or Frankenstein, Tender Buttons or White Noise, and a student invariably will ask, Why is the ground always wet? Well, because we're under water, basically. That’s why when an oil tanker churns by, headed upriver, you find yourself looking up to see it: the Mississippi River is actually above us. It’s also in part why the fire ants are vigorously, ceaselessly building up their dirt mounds: to achieve a modicum of dry land on this eroding edge of the continent. But no, you won't find much under 'ecology' if you search for the fire ant on your smart phone. It hits too close to home. Yes, the delta is vanishing at a rate of a football field each hour. No, I don't know how long that gives us here. Let's open to page 36, and think about how the novel is founded on the non-simple space of the beach...

The New Orleans airport is the second lowest airport in the world, at about four feet above sea level. (Only Amsterdam’s Schipol airport is lower, at eleven feet below sea level.) New Orleans is about to embark on the construction of a brand new, state of the art, world-class airport terminal: an aerotropolis. How am I supposed to incorporate this building project, this mirage of progress, into my teaching and research? Will this space stand simply as a shimmering and seamless transition zone for new students arriving each fall semester? Will the new airport be unquestionable, an utterly straightforward social text? Will our baggage arrive bathed in a sublime aura, at last? Will the air be safe from contaminants, diseases, and other pollutants? Or will the new control tower stand like Ozymandias, an object lesson for a poetics of the brazen?

Sometimes it seems like the most important thing I can do these days in my classes is to preserve a space for slow reading: 75 minutes, two times a week, where we can sit or crouch—be beached—on sinking ground, and read words on pages, to think about these words together, how narrative congeals (or not). If only then to find ourselves in the world, the actual world with all its consequences. To rephrase a line from the preface of Nietzsche's Daybreak, at present it is not only my habit, but even my taste—a perverted taste, maybe—to teach nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is “in a hurry.” Slowness—it seems to me that this is one of the truly inestimable skills, maybe even a form of art, that we can model to our students, and even teach them how to do it: how to decelerate before meaning. Yet how do I balance this desire with or measure it against the simultaneous urgency of ecological awareness?

I worry that I am regressing. A major highpoint of my five and a half years so far teaching at Loyola University New Orleans happened last November, when I joined my biology colleague David White, who takes about thirty students out with him each fall on an evening canoe trip in the bayous surrounding New Orleans. The students get a crash course in “landscape ecology,” or the multiple scales and mosaics of relationships and processes taking place across given ecosystems. The trip included several floating stops to discuss the invasive and prolific Triadica sebifera (or Chinese tallow, or popcorn tree), the water hyacinths spinning by, the channels dredged by humans a century ago—in short, the objects and animacies of this fragile if fecund riparian system. By the end of this evening on the water, the students seemed enchanted—if also perhaps a little exhausted. I had watched them slow down, pay attention, listen. David took extra care to draw attention to the quietude, the sounds of the bayou away from the highway we'd arrived on.

But I digress. I was talking about regression. Ever since that night on the bayou, or maybe it started before, I’ve found myself wanting to get back to teaching nature writing, that na├»ve genre, that earnest kind of literature that strives contradictorily for “contact, contact!” in Thoreau’s words. What is happening to me? I’ve read my eco-criticism carefully, I know my theory, I wrestle with the Derridean aporia of “nature as self-proximity”—why do I want to linger with my students in literary representations of nature, simulacral ecologies as they are? What are these paradoxical pleasures, being in nature and learning to see it (as if ‘it’ even exists!) in literature?

As we paddled back to the vans, through pitch black night, an eerie spotlight darted erratically up ahead, piercing the skein of cypress trees and Spanish moss. A low rumble and sputter echoed across the water. It was hard to make out what it was that was approaching us, but gradually it appeared: Cajuns, a bunch of them, a gaggle of friends or maybe a family, piled into an unbelievably clamorous boat—if you could call it that—a mishmash craft weighed down with…things, chugging through the black night aiming a military grade spotlight, looking for alligators (or so David thought). It was a strange moment, us gliding by in our canoes and them in camouflage jackets rumbling past, blasting us with pivot-mounted incandescence. No words were exchanged, not out of tension or spite but merely due to the noise of their gurgling motor.

Maybe I believe, channeling Nietzsche once more, that reading nature writing itself, perhaps, will not “get things done” so hurriedly: but it will teach how to read well: that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes… This is my regression, and I’m afraid it’s not going away anytime soon.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Real World College

Below is a brief talk I recently gave to the Visiting Committee to the College of Humanities & Natural Sciences at Loyola.

As an undergraduate I went to a rather crazy, small liberal arts college in the Midwest—I won’t name names.

I spent the first two years there wondering what I was doing, where I was going, how I was supposed to figure out my major…

Then about halfway through, the liberal arts mission of the college kicked in. I found that I had amassed many English and Philosophy courses, without really even trying. The question of my major was magically settled. My physics, biology, and Latin classes had captivated me just as much—and I continued taking courses in those disciplines, as well.

I ended up loving my education for all its eccentricities. It gave me an intellectual foundation for which I am more grateful every year.

I earned my PhD from a very different kind of school: the University of California, Davis, where I specialized in American Literature and in critical theory. At UC Davis, you also earn an obligatory degree in wine tasting, because it has one of the world’s foremost oenology & vitaculture programs, and the graduate students and local wineries always need volunteers to taste their new vintages. This skill came in handy once I was on the job market, and I still think my description of a certain Rhone wine at Herbsaint could have played a key role in landing me this job.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be offered a position in the English department in 2009, and to be back on a small campus. And I have thrived here: I love my students, and I have had generous support from my Dean and my home department over the past five years to carry out my research, which focuses on a wide range of cultural studies topics. In 2011 my book on airports in American literature was published, and just this past month my academic study of the actor Brad Pitt came out. (Don’t ask.)

I currently edit a series of essays and pithy books published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury, called Object Lessons: each author takes on a specific object, and writes about it for a general audience. Topics in this series include blankets, hotels, dust, golf balls, phone booths, trees, bread…I could go on and on, for the series is of infinite scope.

In all my writing projects, I have involved students in the publication process—giving them hands-on, real world experience that they can take with them once they leave Loyola. I recently heard from one graduate who took an editorial position with North Atlantic Books in San Francisco; another student emailed me just last week to say she’d been offered a highly selective internship position with Columbia University Press. I’ve also seen my former students go on to terrific graduate programs at institutions all over the country, in fields ranging from film production and creative writing to liberal arts and media studies.

At Loyola, in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I’ve been able to integrate my teaching and scholarship at very turn: whether this means offering an interdisciplinary seminar on airports for first year Honors students, or creating a senior-level seminar on the late (and very challenging) author David Foster Wallace—a course which several students demanded, and who was I to say no?

When I was in college, one of my philosophy professors, Dr. Stephens, had this intense teaching habit: if a student would answer a question with a vague or  academic answer, Dr. Stephens would slam his hand down on the table and practically scream, "Make it real!

Likewise, but perhaps a bit more gently, I always try to impress upon my students that the distinction people make between college and the so-called ‘real world' is a false one. It’s just that it is up to us to actually treat college as a real world, with real implications. Whether I’m discussing postmodern literature with students, or working to help them write vivid prose ready for publication, I’m constantly reminding them that our ideas matter, and that they shape and are shaped by the world around, a world that urgently needs us to be aware and involved.

In the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I think we share this feeling, this real-world obligation toward our teaching and scholarship. We’re not detached, and the students recognize this, and they thrive when they realize that we are earnestly inviting them into real world adventures that require intellect and imagination. I’m glad to be a faculty member at Loyola, and excited to see what the future holds for our college.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Waiting for books in transit

Somewhere outside of New York two boxes of books sit on a truck, or in an airplane hold, in transit.  Perhaps they are at the bottom of a stack of other boxes, pressed down upon, suffocating. Or maybe they rest happily at the top, or somewhere indifferently in between. Maybe they have been tossed recklessly into a dark musty storage container and lie askew. Possibly they have already separated, and are following their own trajectories....

The contents of these boxes is this book whose cover is shown above, the Brad Pitt book, over ten years in the making, a weird and wild assemblage of essays on the actor and celebrity. It's either a field-changing, definitive study of a most popular figure...or it's simply another edited collection by obsessed and arguably deranged academics. Or else it is something else entirely. It might be all three of these things.

My editor in New York emailed me the other day to say she'd seen it, held it, and that it came out great—and here I wait, practically holding my breath, for the box to arrive. Waiting to hold it in my hands, to flip its pages and see what sort of beast it is that I'm at least partially responsible for creating.

I recently wrote a small piece on the book for the site Everyday Analysis, and my co-editor Robert Bennett composed a post for the Bloomsbury Film & Media Studies blog. These are two takes on the project now that we've been away from it for a few months. Still, you'll see that it left its marks on us.

Now there's nothing more to do but wait. We must wait, wait for them to be trundled across the country, a box to New Orleans and a box to Bozeman, Montana. And then, when they arrive, what then?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Kettle Pond

the kettle pond

A few years ago I took a walk in a huge swath of forest that is officially part of the National Lakeshore, but which is weirdly cut off from the rest of the park, in the middle of Leelanau County. That time, I got lost. A friend and I had gone looking for these remote kettle ponds—old glacial scrapes that are spring fed and stay full of water—and after we'd explored the ponds and marshes, we tried to take a bearing and head over a high ridge by way of a shortcut back to the dirt road where we'd parked my car. This was not a great idea. We became disoriented and wandered around for hours before seeing an optical illusion of a barn through the trees—a barn that turned out to be nothing more than a grove of red pines in eerily formal rows, such as they were planted by the CCC in the 1930s. But there was a two-track along the pines that lead back to the road we'd taken in the first place, so eventually we found the car.

The feeling of being lost in the woods stayed with me. On the map the area doesn't seem so big; the National Park Service barely (and even then, ambiguously) identifies it as part of the Park, and there are no signs. In person, its valleys and ridges are overwhelmingly enormous. There are not really any trails to speak of, except for meandering deer paths and occasional random four-wheeler tracks that abruptly end, leaving you facing an uncertain infinity of choices in terms of which direction to go. What appear at first to be straightforward slopes turn into undulations that loop back on themselves, and it is just the most uncanny feeling to be unsure of whether you've seen a certain fallen aspen before, or if this is a different one, and if so, where are you now, it looked like the same place, but you've been walking for ten minutes and you should be somewhere else, unless you got turned around somehow, oh wait, there's a trail ahead, oh no, it's just a slight depression caused by natural drainage after the last thunderstorm....

These perceptions are especially fresh in my mind because last week I went back out to this place twice. While I had never quite shaken off the thrill of being lost (and of course finding my way back), there was another part of those woods that stayed with me: in one of those kettle ponds, when I crept up to the edge of the crystal clear water, I stared wide-eyed as two big (at least for this northern climate) largemouth bass swam within feet of me, looking up at me as if in sheer curiosity. The vision of those fish stayed with me. I wanted to get back out there with my fly rod.

Can you spot two bass in the shallows?

So I returned to the kettle pond with my fly rod, only sort of getting lost the first day, and only vaguely the second day (but feeling ready to be completely lost again at any moment, both days). I discovered the pond to be full of bass as well as some strange hybrid sunfish with larger-than-normal mouths. The fishing was exciting to say the least, but it was no walk in the park (even if it was, in a way). First there's the hike there, which was riddled with mystery—at one point the second day I found myself convinced I'd lost my way, and I felt ridiculous standing in a valley of ferns with no water in sight, holding my fly rod. But finally the cedar thicket materialized and the pond was there.

The fishing proper was rather exhausting and maddening, as the pond is basically a bog; there is no sandy bank to stroll along or wade into. While it looks shallow, the bottom is essentially depthless. You sink right in up to your waist and are surrounded by the tall bulrushes that encircle the pond, whose barbed spikelets manage to constantly grab your fly line, your fly, your shirt...in short, you find yourself totally tangled up about every three minutes.* The bass would shoot across the shallows dramatically and grab my fly off the surface of the water, but then they'd burrow down into aquatic micro-forests of muskgrass, creating the impression of suddenly having the entire world attached to the end of the line. Or they'd take long leaping runs across the pond, the reel drag screaming against my palm. And every time I'd want to move along the shoreline, I had to heave with great effort to break the suction around my feet and legs as I would have slowly sunk deeper into the silt muck as I'd been fishing. And while the fish are relatively gregarious, it's still very easy to spook them; in the glassy water they are used to having to flee from osprey and eagles who perch on maple and oak branches fifty feet above.

I'm trying to write this in a way that it isn't merely a fishing story, and isn't simply stock nature writing. I'm writing this with the beginnings of my next book in mind, the book I'm now calling (borrowing from the title of a chilling Hemingway story) Up in Michigan. I've got this idea of writing a hybrid book that blends my jaunts in Michigan with my long running interests and teaching in literature & environment. I don't know how this is going to work, or if it even will, but I've got the inkling of something, some narrative collection of essays that at once celebrates a place, and explodes 'place' as a concept.

A valley of maiden hair ferns disrupts my sense of place

*At dinner a few nights later, a couple great friends told me they'd taken up the minimalist fly fishing technique Tenkara, and it occurred to me that this would be a perfect way to fish the kettle pond. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Revisiting Bozeman

I've just returned to Michigan from Bozeman, Montana, where I revisited the airport I worked at over ten years ago. So much was the same, and yet there were also innumerable differences everywhere. I was there to observe and write, and I spent several hours wandering around taking pictures, jotting down notes. I met with the Airport Director Brian Sprenger, and he talked to me about recent trends and challenges; then he gave me a tour, focusing specifically on the major expansion and redesign of a few years ago. I was particularly excited to see the new high-tech baggage makeup area behind the check-in counters, with its overhead conveyors and multiple drop-points. When I worked at the airport, moving baggage around was a pretty ad-hoc endeavor—at least compared to the new system.

It was an emotionally intense trip (for reasons that I won't get into here), and strange if also invigorating to see the airport, 'my' airport, this relatively minor travel site that has been somewhat major for me, this place I've written about and thought about so much over the past several years. 

What struck me almost immediately upon my arrival was the indifference of the airport. It's just an airport doing its job, moving people in and out of the state—just like it always has, cooly accepting eager fly fishermen and crisp cowboys (I'm using the masculine here on purpose), and then a few days later spiriting these same forlorn souls away in tightly packed tubes.

And yet...there are things going on here that are not only unique to Bozeman, but which are indicative of broader currents and snags in the culture of flight. I'm writing about these things as a way to conclude my book The End of Airports, which sweeps from my own ethnography of the airport in 2001-2003, to more current episodes and dilemmas that riddle air travel.

My tagline for this book is that I'm not writing an obituary for airports, but more like a mystery. What are these gray places we pass through, only always to leave behind in our minds? What makes these concentrated nodes of hubris and gaudiness at once so remarkable and so forgettable? How do we inhabit their ambiguous boundaries? Where do airports begin, and where do they end? How does air travel fit into our era of 'new media', where things move so much faster than the speed of planes?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing about place

beneath bracken ferns, during hide & seek with Julien

It's impossible to write about place.

I was chatting with my friend Ian the other day and he mentioned in passing, "writing is impossible." We had been talking about how hard it really is to write clear coherent prose. It is. Difficult, I mean. Just try following your thoughts and sensations for five minutes, and putting them into neat prose.

Then you add a topic, or god forbid a 'theme', and it gets harder still. Focus, attention, word by word, sentence to paragraph. Logical propositions. What was I talking about again?

It's impossible to write about place. I've been thinking about this book I want to write about the little corner of Michigan where I'm from, the Leelanau peninsula. Part nature writing, part memoir, part environmental theory, I want the book to be both a testament to this place and to reflect the reading, thinking, and teaching I've done on literature & environment over the past decade or so. Every spring I get excited and inspired to work on the book when I leave New Orleans and arrive for the summer.

Then I get up here and I am almost instantaneously overwhelmed by the borderless expanses of the place. I'm not referring to its geography, so much. I mean it's bigger than Walden Pond but not that big. I've walked a portion of its shorelines (at least on the west side of the peninsula), and have meandered through its various woods and meadows, during all hours of the day and at night. And anyway, people have written good books about entire National Parks and other such privileged or delimited zones before. That's not the problem.

There's something about the saturated quality of this place, all the personal psychological inroads as well as two-track off-roads, the cultural hotspots and weird spaces beyond the grid. I have thought of this book as a 21st-century Walden, or perhaps better an anti-Walden. "Anti-" in the dialectical sense, trying to locate some of the contradictions and tensions within the thinking that Thoreau so well tied to a specific place and its natural registers. But so far, I keep running into nearly impenetrable thickets of things, thoughts, and otherwise thorny obstacles. I suppose it is a good thing—there is a lot I want to write about here, even as it pushes back on me.

Nevertheless...it's impossible to write about place.

Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I often begin my freshman writing courses with a seemingly simple assignment: write about your room. Just describe it as best you can. How long? I don't know, see how much you can notice, what's around. Two pages, three, four—how far can you go? It's an exercise in attention to detail and sustained focus on a single, bounded place. But the boundaries quickly become blurry and elastic. I recall one student last fall who ended up lingering on his dorm window and gradually came to the realization that inside and outside were not as a clear and distinct as he'd assumed. He wondered, did the screws that bolted his window closed count as part of his room? The glass? And if so, just the interior side, or the weather-beaten exterior, as well? Impossible to decide.

I'm having similar conundrums as I play hide & seek with Julien in the valleys, as I canoe inland lakes shrouded in mist. What is this place? How can one draw a perimeter around it, in thought? When does the writing begin, from where should it take off?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Canoeing, a brief personal history

In the canoe last summer, on the big lake

Rumor has it that there were four water rescues out in Lake Michigan last week. At least, four near where I am, on the Leelanau peninsula. The big lake is big, and can go from glassy calm to six-foot swells in a matter of minutes, if the wind direction shifts just slightly. The new craze for paddle boards seems to have promoted a false sense of security on the lake, as if these picturesque northern bays should naturally behave like tropical coves: warm, languid, and predictable. But they don't, and no matter how expensive your board is, and no matter how hip your sunglasses and low-profile your personal flotation device, the water is very cold and you won't last long once you are tossed into it.

I'm terrified of the big lake. I always have been. When I was seven or eight, at summer camp, I went out with a group on a Hobie Cat and it flipped in high wind; I recall the feeling of total dread as we bobbed in the deep blue and our counselor worked to right the seemingly minuscule, flimsy vessel. I don't even recall what happened: did we sail back? Were we rescued by a motorboat? I know I cried. I sobbed, blubbering my tiny tears into indifferent cresting waves. I never went out on a sailboat again. (Maybe once, on a tranquil day ten years later, on a Sunfish with an expert sailor—I don't know, I've blocked it out.)

I learned to canoe, and this felt better—more stable, less audacious when it came to speed and long sprints away from shore. Paddling parallel to the shore on flat water was perfectly acceptable, learning to switch places bow and stern, balancing on the gunwales; how to re-flip a capsized canoe in deep water using the air trapped beneath the hull, lifting the gunwales straight up while simultaneously swiftly kicking hard in the water and hurling the craft over, ideally empty of all water. When done right it was a thing to see.

I grew up canoeing the inland lakes and rivers each summer, but never really thinking about it as anything romantic. Heavy plastic green canoes, occasionally a red one, or lighter-weight but clumsier (because longer) aluminum ones, banging on the ground at the put-in, screeching past low hanging branches down sluggish brown rivers. Ramshackle week-long trips with tasteless Sysco foodstuffs cooked at night over smoky fires. Leeches horrifyingly elastic and bloated; leaky dry-bags; soggy sleeping bags; the dank smell of tents encrusted with blood splatters from communally feasting mosquitos slapped onto the tentwalls season after season, overlapping sepia stains.

Later I was wooed by sea kayaks: they seemed more elegant and sporty (the colors alone!). But I never could master the roll, with that magical twist of the hips. During my early twenties I lead kayaking tours on Yellowstone Lake and on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Parks. These were fairly low key trips, even if the landscapes were dramatic. Mostly day trips, we could paddle around 'interpreting' the geography, flora, and fauna, acting like we knew a lot more than we actually did. I tried river kayaking one time with a highly skilled friend who had a couple short whitewater boats; after attempting a few moves in the swift current I got slammed into a canyon wall, flipped, and ended up swimming the next few miles.

In Wyoming another part of that job was leading river trips, on inflatable rafts. Our company took a scenic trip down ten miles of the Upper Snake River, on a large raft with an oar rig—this was a meandering journey through meadows and steadily rising foothills just north of Jackson Lake. Then there was a quick three-mile section above that, through a whitewater canyon with some standing waves that peaked in late May and could reach astonishing intensity for a few days (the site of my botched kayaking adventure). I found I was quite good at navigating the smaller inflatable rafts, where we all used paddles (and the guide in the back with a longer paddle commanded the paddlers up front, aka "guests" or "customers"). I quickly realized that all those years in crappy canoes with lousy partners in the bow had given me an intuitive sense of how to wrangle a large vessel from a single point of contact with the water. A single paddle blade moved just right can do amazing things.

In the spring of 2013 my father-in-law died, leaving me to more or less tacitly inherit his fifty-year-old Grumman canoe: an aluminum, mass produced piece of art that had been in his family for decades, moving around all along the east coast before ending up here in northern Michigan. The rivets are all sound, and the keel tracks like it is fresh off the assembly line. Last summer I took the canoe out several times on the big lake—on exceptionally calm days, staying near shore. At the end of the summer I took my father-in-law's ashes out on Lake Michigan and spread them where he used to love to swim; the gray ashen mist itself swam and swirled as it descended through fifteen feet of water and disappeared.

This summer I installed cross bars on the roof our small Subaru, and I've been taking the canoe to all the inland lakes I fished every day when I was growing up. I know these lakes like the back of my hand and it has been thrilling, eerie, and in short kind of delightfully strange to take my son Julien to these lakes and tell him stories that I dredge up from twenty-some years ago, sense impressions unleashed by sudden flights of sandhill cranes, fish explosions on the lake's surface, cloud formations that tumble over the forested hillsides.

I have things to write about each of these lakes, these depthless glacial pockets along the lakeshore. This is just a beginning, an attempt to briefly sketch out a personal history of canoeing. Actually the more I think about it, the more I see I've left some important chapters out already.* But this will suffice for now, as a start. One of the hardest parts of writing is just getting started.

Julien in the canoe this summer, on a small lake

* Two come to mind that I want to remember for later: canoeing Algonquin Provincial Park when I was seventeen, and canoeing on Hyalite Lake with Greg Keeler, where we'd fish for cutthroat trout.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Obligatory blog update

summer home

Twitter feels more and more useful as a place to write/think/connect, but I still feel the need to update this blog from time to time. So, out of a strange sense of archival obligation, here's what I've been up to lately:

I'm back in Michigan for the summer, where I'm finishing up _Deconstructing Brad Pitt—we're in the final proofreading stages now.


I'm also working on Object Lessons, as well as a few other writing projects of my own. Later this summer I'm taking a research trip to Bozeman, Montana, to write about the airport (BZN) ten years after I worked there. I have no idea what I'll find, but I'm excited to be there, to wander around and observe. My plan is for whatever I write about BZN to become the concluding part of the book I'm calling The End of Airports. The book is sort of a prequel and a sequel to The Textual Life of Airports (if that makes sense). Along other airport lines I'm preparing a course I'm teaching this coming fall at Loyola, an Honors seminar called "Interpreting Airports." I taught a first draft of this class this past semester, and it was a blast; I'm hoping it becomes one of my staple courses.

Whenever I'm back in Michigan I stumble on old books from my childhood. I think one day I may put together a course on children's literature, and focus especially on some of the weirder, out-of-print ones—like this one, Timothy's Dream Book by Pierre Le-Tan, which I read to my son Julien the other night, recalling each page as I read it again with a certain uncanny delight:

Timothy's Dream Book

The morels have been really good this spring, because of the heavy snowpack; but they are also more scattered and trickier to find, as the white ash tree population has been decimated by the emerald ash borer beetle, and morels tend to cluster around ash trees on certain hillsides.

morels in the woods

Finally, there's the new roommate! We're getting to know Camille, who is almost eight weeks old now and starting to feel like a real part of our daily rhythms and routines.

Camille & Julien

Since having dinner with Kathryn Bond Stockton a few months ago, and after listening to her terrific talk at Tulane on representations of "the queer child," I've been thinking a lot about 'the child' as an alien thing...and considering how I might write something about this topic, sometime in the near future. But really, for now, this summer I'm trying to clear my desk of things and take some actual time off.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alone, With Craft

A Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 First Class Suite

The New Inquiry has just published a new essay of mine, called "Escape Velocity," about two stories that appeared on the Internet over the past couple months: the Boeing 777 made out of manila folders, and Jason E. Harrington's essay about his former job with the TSA and subsequent ascension into an esteemed MFA program. These are both ephemeral, viral-for-a-day stories that involve air travel, and various friends and students alerted me to them when they started making the rounds.

My analysis of Luca Iaconi-Stewart's intricate model airplane was inspired by my adoption of this story in my current class at Loyola, Interpreting the Airport: we discussed this curious story, and talked about what made this plane (and the way it was photographed and displayed on the CNN website) so captivating and strange. My students had such terrific insights and responses to the story, and in class I started writing (with their input) what would become the first part of the essay.

In my other course this semester, Contemporary Nonfiction, I assigned Harrington's essay, in particular for how it enfolds the act of writing (and the desire to be a 'writer') into the broader problem at hand, i.e. the TSA and its attendant travesties involving the full body scanners. My students in that class responded very well to this piece, noting how the author used the occasion of the unpopular government agency and airport security to bolster and boost his own budding writing career; we've been talking a lot in this class about the possibilities, necessities, and limits of self-promotion (especially with social media), and what it means to write nonfiction about a discrete topic while also including the topic of oneself as writer in the writing. So, Harrington's piece gave us a lot to work with.

I respect Harrington's jumping off point, airport-worker-turned-writer. It's somewhat similar to my own trajectory, and I think it's an incredibly important point of critique—notes from the field, as it were. But I also think the essay is a fascinating example of how new media forms of communication are outpacing—and even out-dramatizing—the very subjects and objects which they are ostensibly merely about. Flight isn't so fancy these days.

Take the case of the currently missing Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It is a terrifying mystery, and a very real situation involving hundreds of travelers and justifiably worried and frustrated relatives and friends. But it's also a situation that has captivated millions of unrelated (one almost wants to say random) Internet users, and has therefore generated countless hits and associated advertising revenue. It has become a phenomenon that goes way beyond navigation technics, commercial aviation, and personal routes of flight. For all of the collective efforts to find the lost plane—people rallying around crowd-sourcing endeavors and adding to hashtag assemblages—there is also a way that all these scattered Internet users around the globe are on their own, alone with the craft of communicating in our late digital age. We like to think that air travel is still about self-contained individual humans flying to solid places for grounded, real experiences; but being alone, with craft, has a lot to do with farther flung modes of work, communication, being, and entertainment, too.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Object Lessons, the backstory

Earlier this winter Ander Monson asked me & Ian to do an editor's post on Object Lessons for the Essay Daily; it's up and you can see it here. And now for further edification, here's even more—the backstory of the series:

A few years ago my editor at what was then Continuum, Haaris Naqvi, and I were eating at a Thai restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island—this was during an ACLA conference hosted by Brown University. I had just presented a paper on David Foster Wallace's use of air travel in The Pale King. Over bowls of steaming curry, Haaris wondered if I’d be interested in proposing a new series of cultural studies books for the press. (My recently published airport book had triggered this idea.) At that time I had been reading lightly if enthusiastically across the burgeoning movement called Object-Oriented Ontology, and teaching some of these texts in my courses at Loyola, and I immediately thought about a series devoted to single objects and the lessons they hold. On the spot I came up with the series title “Object Lessons.” Reaktion has a very nice academic series called objekt—I admired these books, but wanted more of them. Lots more. And I wanted them to be a little shorter, pithier: books you could read on a single cross-country flight, say. I had a vision for the series: an endless list of slim books unified by a striking design, brief titles (one or two words, no subtitles), and the utterly unexpected juxtapositions that would occur between the volumes over time.

I had this hunch that there were plenty of academics who know a lot about single things—whether from long research projects or just from everyday life and non-academic hobbies. But there isn’t really a place for this kind of para-academic writing: a place to write about that one thing that captivates you but which in normal academic writing would get subsumed by vast apparatuses of frameworks, concepts, and theory. So much scholarly writing ends up in forms that are either too expensive for the common reader to access, or too abstruse to understand (much less enjoy) if you are outside of the author’s discipline or field of expertise. Where can an academic write more playfully, in accessible prose, for a wider audience? (There are blogs, sure—but who really wants to read another blog?)

I initially saw Object Lessons as a venue for two types of academics: junior scholars who were working on a traditional monograph but who also had a pet project, maybe some minor topic that got a page-worth of attention in their book, but which could warrant a small book of its own; and more senior scholars who were at that point in their career when they might want to write a smart yet accessible book on a single thing—something they know enough about to come at it from a surprising angle.

From the outset I envisioned the series as having crossover appeal: a venue for public intellectual writing (in the best sense of that phrase). Neither compromising theoretical sophistication nor abandoning lucid and lithe prose, the series would be a place for good smart writing on a wide range of ordinary and concrete topics. Was this unrealistic, idealistic, too neat and tidy a vision? Probably so.

Nevertheless, I started conjuring this book series, and as part of the initial proposal I asked about a dozen writers and scholars whose work I admired to serve on the Advisory Board—including Ian Bogost, whose wonderful Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing I had just read.

About a year later, Ian came to New Orleans to give a talk from a new book project, and over wine one afternoon we were talking about the book series, and Ian suddenly raised the stakes: what if it weren’t just a book series, but if it had a corollary essay series, published in a high profile venue like The Atlantic? It turned out that Ian had been mulling over a similar series idea, but essay-oriented, rather than geared toward books. But what if we merged these plans? In short, what if it was a series with two outlets, for two (not mutually exclusive) forms of writing?

From that point on, things happened fast. We drafted up a proposal for Ian's contacts at The Atlantic, and Alexis Madrigal and his savvy crew loved the idea of the series. The essays would be run primarily out of their Technology Channel, which gave us a useful constraint and challenge for how to describe what we meant by 'objects'. (You can read some of that proposal's language here.)

As we sat there discussing the series we intermittently rattled off lists of objects, at turns focusing and expanding the potential scope of the series:

bundt cake, cuttlefish, aircraft carriers...vacuum bags, bottle caps, flying buttresses…Blow Pops, slime mold, sawdust, silence...magnesium, bone marrow, bilge pumps...crabgrass, Kleenex, coolant...lodgepole pinecones, dryer lint, dental floss...honey, hurricanes, heliotropes, hatred...morel mushrooms, molasses, landing gear...copper wire, cruise ships, Velcro...tampons, tigers, trademarks, trash...cilium, silt, silence, suitcases...dirt, dioramas, interstellar nebulae...windshield wipers, wonder, inchworm...

While we were developing the proposal for the series, something happened to Continuum: it merged with the publisher Bloomsbury, which ended up working out well for us, as the larger independent publisher offered the series a wider platform and robust marketing. And Haaris got promoted. Haaris is terrific, and helps us move our book proposals through the review and vetting processes at a brisk pace. He's also a champion of top-notch design and overall book quality, which is one of the ulterior motives of the series: to make books that are themselves elegant objects, pleasant to hold and to read.

We launched the series in June 2013, and you can read the rest at the Essay Daily...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Introducing Scott Shershow

poster by Nancy Bernardo*

Scott Shershow is a great friend and was a fantastic mentor of mine at UC Davis; he directed my dissertation on airports in American literature and culture. Scott visited New Orleans a couple years ago and gave a fascinating talk at Loyola last year on the philosophical debates that undergird laws and ethics around the topics of suicide and the right to die. The book that developed from that talk, Deconstructing Dignity, has just come out, and Scott has a terrific post at the University of Chicago Press's blog on recent episodes where these issues have flared up once again in the news, stirring up a range of tense (and not always consistent) emotions, attitudes, and ideas. This got me thinking back to Scott's talk at Loyola last year, and I realized I might as well put my introduction to Scott here on my blog. The introductions we write for guest speakers often become so much more ephemeral work done by academics—a crumpled page in the recycle bin or a forgotten file in a blue simulacral folder, never to be looked at again. So, here it is:


Professor Shershow’s work ranges across conceptual boundaries with relentless ease, making sophisticated and always surprising connections between political economy, Western philosophy, visual arts, literature, and anthropology—to name a mere few of the fields that his work traverses. 

I’ve been referring to Shershow’s “work,” but what I really should say is that Shershow excels at unworking texts—and not just literary texts, but all sorts of structures and textures that form and inform everyday life.

Whether he is elaborating the most troubling and perplexing implications of torture, describing precisely how a Sarah Silverman line clinches a philosophical knot, unpacking the dense rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ in post-9/11 discourse, or delineating the conflicting economic schemas that course through the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic—in all these cases, Shershow’s thinking maintains a buoyancy, a rigor, and a flexibility that is always refreshing, and equally challenging. 

Where I am tempted to quote something from the philosopher Jacques Derrida in order to further elaborate Shershow's contributions to contemporary critical theory, I will instead turn to a few lines by Wallace Stevens, from “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract”—these lines, I believe, evoke the spirit of Scott Shershow’s unique and inspiring style of inquiry, unworked:

If the day writhes, it is not with revelations.
One goes on asking questions. That, then, is one
Of the categories. So said, this placid space

Is changed. It is not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
There must be no questions. It is an intellect
Of windings round and dodges to and fro,

Writhings in wrong obliques and distances,
Not an intellect in which we are fleet…